The Daily Bread, 23rd April 2020: Jesus Christ, ever person’s dilemma.
Readings: Acts 5:27-33; Psalm 33(34):2,9,17-20; John 3:31-36
When preparing today’s readings yesterday evening, I was immediately struck by the fact that both of them end with reference to that rather difficult reality we call anger.
In the first reading, we hear of the murderous fury of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of the Holy Land you could say at the time of Jesus. Their anger is against the Apostles, and for two reasons. First, because despite being warned formally against it, the Apostles were continuing to preach the resurrection of Jesus. Second, they were trying to pin the responsibility for the death of Jesus on the Sanhedrin. This second point is almost laughable, of course. Everyone knew that the Sanhedrin had worked hard to have Jesus betrayed, to condemn him and to hand him over to the Romans for execution. So, to accuse the Apostles of “trying” to pin the blame on them shows how deluded they were.
The resurrection of Jesus and the Sanhedrin’s responsibility for his death were quite simply the truth. Hence, the Sanhedrin was angry at the truth. In last Saturday’s first reading, we heard how the Sanhedrin did not want to hear of the resurrection; they “decided” it wasn’t true; they were afraid of it. Now that the Apostles are insisting on it, their fear has turned to anger, and to murderous anger at that. A fine attitude for what was supposed to be the Supreme Court of Israel!
Moving to the Gospel, today’s excerpt ends with reference to another anger, a far more ominous and fearful one, the anger of God. God’s anger is always justified, and so it is truly fearsome. The Gospel says that the anger of God rests or stays over those who refuse to believe in the Son of God. Unlike the anger of men, God’s anger is not rooted in passion, it is not murderous like that of the Sanhedrin. It’s not an irrational fear of the truth, as if somehow God perceived a threat from the truth.
God’s anger is because his love has been rejected, and his love is that he sent his only Son so that we would believe and find life in him. God’s anger is the divine sadness that men would refuse, reject Christ, and thus commit what amounts to spiritual suicide in the process. He is angry that we are choosing death by rejecting life in his Son.
The Gospel says that this anger of God stays over the one who refuses to believe in Jesus. That’s a powerful concept. Our anger is more often than not a flash in the pan. But God’s anger here is characterised as being sustained over the person who refuses to believe in Jesus. And when we speak of believing in Jesus, we are not referring to faith as mere words only. The demons also say in the Gospel that Jesus is the Son of God. The faith in Jesus which the Father wants is a faith coming from the heart, a faith which is shown in a life lived for Jesus, grounded on him and with him as its goal. It is a faith which means that a person has accepted Jesus into his/her heart in a profound and personal way.
It was such a faith that the Jewish authorities refused to profess in Jesus. And so, they rejected him. And why did they do that? Well, it was Pontius Pilate himself who knew why: they were jealous of Jesus. Put bluntly, they were jealous of God, since Jesus was the Son of God and many of them probably knew it. They wanted what he had, his power; and they wanted what he was, God. Remember the parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard? It tells us plainly that they knew well when the owner of the vineyard was sending his son, but they killed him to have his property, his inheritance, and so to take his place, to “be” him. And so, the Sanhedrin, by killing Jesus, was fulfilling the prophecy of Jesus’ own parable which even then they knew applied to them.
When it comes to jealousy of God, there are echoes here of the original sin of Satan and of Adam and Eve whom Satan duped into sharing in his jealousy. Satan had promised Eve that she and Adam would be “like gods.” It was a false and empty promise, of course. But they bought into it. They did not want God to be God. They wanted to be gods. They wanted to know good and evil, meaning they wanted to decide for themselves what was good and evil. They wanted to eat from the tree of life, that is, to invent and generate within themselves their own immortality. Absurd though that is, it is the self-deception and illusion into which the rejection of God inexorably leads.
People who consider themselves as their own god, whether or not they say they believe in Jesus, have fallen into the same illusion. If the sole criterion of my life and decision is myself, my preferences, my own thinking, my own will, then alarm bells should be ringing loudly.
What of those who are indifferent to Christ? Sadly, indifference amounts to rejection. To side-line Jesus from your life as if he didn’t really make any difference to it, as if he didn’t matter, amounts to saying that he would be as well not being there at all. In real terms, despite any lip-service being paid to Jesus, his presence, teaching, grace, and even his suffering, death and resurrection, are of no real consequence to me. Kierkegaard says that it’s not enough for the Word to be true: it must impact upon my deepest self as the Truth, as my Truth.
What of those who live good lives? Certainly, that is and must be pleasing to God, and for those who have never heard of him, or who may have heard of him but not in any methodical or significant way, it will surely be enough to forestall the anger of God.
We cannot judge, of course, not even ourselves. But the words of the Gospel are clear, and they must mean something. We all have family members who have been given the knowledge of Jesus at home, at school, in the parish, but who have effectively stopped believing in him. Most, if not all, of them live good lives, are good people, we would say. There is no denying that. But is that enough to make them pleasing to God if they have deliberately rejected or grown indifferent to Jesus? If it were enough, why then did Jesus come at all? Merely to show us how to live good lives? Or also to show us how to live in conscious union with him, with his life?
Can we seriously exalt living a good life or being a good person above the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus as if these latter were superfluous, mere historical details, impressive but essentially irrelevant to “living a good life”? Is true faith in Christ the same thing as living a good life or vice-versa? And, if it is not to devolve into being a cliché, what exactly is a good life? Who measures what is good? Who measures what is good enough? Am I the measure f my own goodness? If not, then who? Once someone addressed Jesus as “Good Master” and he replied, “why do you call me good? God alone is good.” In other words, goodness and good lives and good persons cannot be measured apart from God. Can we say someone is good who openly rejects Jesus or lives in total indifference to him?
I am asking a lot of questions, and I’m not sure I have the answers. But God holds us responsible for how we relate to his Son, the gift of his love, sent to rescue us from sin and death. And so, these and other questions need asking and pondering and, with his grace and wisdom, they also need answers.
May the Lord grant all of us the gift of faith, the forgiveness of our sins. May he grant above all to those who have openly rejected Jesus or become indifferent to him the fire and flame of the Holy Spirit to awaken and to reawaken their faith in the only-begotten Son of the Father, the Risen Saviour of the world!